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Pentecost and Cutting off the Breath of God

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love the way you love,
and do what you would do.

During quarantine I have been recording multi-track handbell videos of hymn arrangements. Since this coming Sunday is Pentecost (the arrival of the spirit in Acts 2) I posted a recording of the hymn “Breathe On Me, Breathe of God.”

It didn’t occur to me for several hours how my video may have been inappropriate (or at best, awkward) to post just a day after black man George Floyd was pinned by white offers, screamed “I Can’t Breathe” and then died in custody. This story (and the countless others like it) continues to fuel both righteous anger and deep complacency in the United States.

As I began to consider Pentecost in this context, I was filled with anger. While Pentecost is (and has been since Ancient times) one of the most lively days in the life of the Church, I began to lament, knowing that God’s gift of the spirit — God’s breath — has been denied to so many people of color in the United States. At creation God’s spirit actively participates and “hovers over the waters” (Gen 1:2). God’s breathe continues to form and reform us. When we hurt others, we both deface the image of God and deny God’s gift of breath. We deny the gift that God will “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17).

For many of us it’s easy to think that we don’t commit violent crimes and therefore “we’re good”. But Jesus offers a stunning rebuke to our complacency by describing in the Sermon on the Mount what life in God’s kingdom is all about:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment … So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:21-24)

Maybe Jesus knows that anger can lead to hatred and hatred can lead to violence. Maybe Jesus knows if left unchecked anger leads to unhealthy relationships, to mental and physical anguish. Anger has the power to destroy us and to destroy communities, just as police brutality does again and again.  For Jesus, living in the kingdom of God (and in true communion with God) is about reconciliation: “first be reconciled to your brother or sister”. For Jesus, building the blessed community involves acknowledging our pain and our brokenness and working toward restoring our relationships with one another.

Like any emotion, anger is not “good” or “bad,” by itself. It may more useful to acknowledge, as with any emotion, that anger can be helpful and harmful. Righteous anger has the power to move us to action, particularly after an injustice has happened. Jesus, speaking truth to power, became angry with those who upheld unjust systems. Later in the book of Matthew, Jesus says to the pharisees: “woe to you…for you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23). While these leaders “followed the rules” for presenting temple offerings and sacrifices, they failed to enact the intent behind the law: justice and mercy and faith.

As a so-called Christian nation, we are so far from pursuing justice for black and brown people. Who is it, really, that can’t breathe? We claim that we live by the Holy Spirit, we ask for it to “break me, melt me, mold me, fill me”. But do we really trust and follow the spirit’s power do so? The book of Acts tracks the movement of the Spirit after Pentecost and describes ways that it led the apostles to pursue justice. Early on Peter bears to the spirit’s power to convict the counsel or Jesus’s unjust killing:

“The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God  rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.'” (Acts 5:27-32)

This language of “whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree” (used several times in Acts) has deeply painful overtones in the United States, where many historians observe that today’s victims of police brutality are much like victims of lynching after the Civil War. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes:

“The lynching tree—so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgatha – should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’s death. But it does not. In fact the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections on Jesus’s cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was essentially a first century lynching.” (30)

Jesus Christ already died for our sins. How long do black and brown people have to die in the United States for the sin of racism? Floyd’s is just one of countless black lives lost to police brutality in the United States. With the prophets and the Psalmist we cry “How long, O Lord?” Because when we kill image-bearers, we kill God.

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Reflection: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

Kentucky hymnwriter Thomas O. Chisholm (1866-1960), author of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

This past January at the Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship we sang the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”  at multiple services. This unplanned coincidence promoted me to reflect more deeply on the words of this song. I invite you to reflect on the chorus:

Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Thomas O. Chisholm (1923)

Even though I really like studying hymns, I never paid close attention to “Great is Thy Faithfulness”  before the conference. It was just another hymn used for the assurance of pardon (meant to comfort the congregation after a prayer confession). But after singing these words dozens of times I was uplifted by an international community of faith finding hope in God’s mercy and faithfulness.

The striking thing about these words is that they come from the Old Testament book of Lamentations, which contains five poems reflecting on the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire in 586 BCE and is traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. In this time of uncertainty and suffering around the world, we might resonate with some of the poet’s words: “though I cry for help, [God] shut out my prayer” (Lam 3:8) or “gone is my glory, and all that I hope for from the Lord.” (Lam 3:18).  

When all is lost, trusting in God is hard. Many of the Biblical authors affirm that part of the human experience is questioning if God is truly present at all (see Psalm 10). But in the midst of suffering and destruction, the lamenting poet proclaims:

 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
    the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
    and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:19-24

These are some of the only hopeful words in the book of Lamentations. My Lutheran study Bible offers this reflection:

To us, lament often sounds like despair, the opposite of faith. Yet, … it is precisely in these places where we would least expect to find God, in suffering, pain, disaster, catastrophe—and in the cross—that God is clearly present. Lamentations, then does more than simply express despair. It shows is that in the most difficult times and places, God is present and hears our desperate cries for help.

Lutheran Study Bible (Augsburg Fortress)

If you have a challenging time trusting in God’s faithfulness, you are not alone. While we loudly proclaim “great is thy faithfulness!” in our worship, lament and anger also frame the Biblical witness. In this time of uncertainty, please lament, but also rest in the assurance that God’s mercies are new every morning.

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God’s Promise: “You Are Mine”

This is a confusing time. The global health crisis has sparked fear and concern around the world. How can our faith provide comfort?

For me it is meaningful to remember God’s promise to be with us always. God created us, formed us and now sustains us.  Jesus, the savior of the world, assures us “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

A song that has brought me comfort in this time is “You Are Mine” by Catholic liturgical composer David Haas. The chorus is based on Isaiah 43:1-7:

Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine

David Haas (1996)

What a profound thing it is to be named and called by God. Sometimes I feel insecure and wonder if I am “doing enough” or the “right things,” but when I read these words I am reminded that I am enough. I am a child of God. By embracing God’s love for me I feel less invested in the impossible task of trying to please others. Instead I am free love God, myself and others.  

I encourage you to listen to this song and receive the comfort that God offers.

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Reflection: “The Coventry Carol”

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In church tradition December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. This day remembers the infanticide committed by Herod in Bethlehem, a dark part the Christmas story that is sometimes forgotten.

The Flight to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-23)

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” (Hosea 11:1) When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”


Reflection

As defined by the United Nations, a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” This means that Jesus and his earthly parents were refugees, forced to flee because of state-sanctioned massacre. Fr. James Martin explains that the Greek word pheuge (“flee”) used in Matthew’s gospel is the basis of the English word “refugee.”

According to the Guardian, there are about 66 million people displaced worldwide, and about 26 million qualify for refugee status.  Like the Holy Family, millions of people today are fleeing from war, poverty and persecution. They deserve our prayers and support. The prophet Jeremiah writes:

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

Jeremiah 22:3

Jesus was not born among the powerful. Instead, he was born to overthrow the powerful. In the Magnificat, Mary expresses of Jesus will overturn all of our social structures:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
  and sent the rich away empty.

Luke 1:52-53

Let this amazing (and terrifying) juxtaposition set in: Jesus born among animals and lowly shepherds but will overthrow all earthly power structures. In other words, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Simeon, a devout man in Jerusalem, blesses Jesus, saying that “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34-35).

At Christmas we often admire the gentle baby, who “no crying he makes“, but in truth Jesus was born among the lowly, fled from a violent regime and yet will topple earthly rulers. Whether he knew this or not, Herod was rightful scared of the Holy Infant, who would become the ruler of all rulers (Revelation 19:16).

In opposition to earthly rulers who use their power to exploit: Jesus’s reign is a message of hope: hope for the powerless, the migrants, the poor and the dirty and a hope that one day the world will be made right. The reign of God is under, not over for “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). God shows compassion, justice and mercy to the lowly (Psalm 113:7) and by participating in acts of peace and justice we brush up against the encroaching Kingdom of God.


The Coventry Carol

The “Coventry Carol” is a beloved Christmas carol, but the words of the carol are often neglected. The middle medieval poem is a lullaby sung by grieving mothers whose boys fell victim to Herod’s massacre.

Lullay thou little tiny child,
By, by lully lullay.

O sisters, too how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
By by lully lullay.

Herod the king, in his raging
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.

Then woe is me, poor child for thee
And ever mourn and say;
For thy parting, no say nor sing
By by lully lullay

Listen

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Advent and the Death of Jesus

I read hymns. I absorb hymns. I internalize hymns. I want to understand how good hymns invite us into the depths of human experience.  Sometimes I’m surprised when familiar texts give way to new spiritual insights that are hard to put into words.

“What Child Is This” in A Hymnal and Service Book for Sunday Schools, Day Schools, Guilds, Brotherhoods, etc. (1893)

William Chatterton Dix’s 1865 hymn asks the rhetorical question, What Child is This? Who is this child? Why is he greeted by angels and shepherds? If this child is a king, why has he born “in such mean estate”?  The original text offers a shocking reply:

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.

I had never read these words before this year. They caught me by complete surprise. The fate of this innocent child is death—death on a cross. Suddenly the death of Jesus becomes real because Jesus was real. Jesus was a child. Jesus was a baby. And this baby was brutally murdered.  I find Dix’s words incredibly profound, but for reasons that are hard to describe.

While Advent brings hope, peace, joy and love, the birth of Jesus came during a time of intense darkness. The historical evidence suggests Jesus was born in a militarized zone with Roman guards on the streets of Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph were likely poor laborers and were oppressively taxed to support the Roman and Jewish elite. This political and social darkness is still a reality for most people in today’s world.

Christmas hymns that tell the story of the death of Jesus remind us that Jesus was born for adversity (Prov 17:17). From birth to death to life, Jesus identified with the oppressed and following him requires that we identify with the same people: refugees, foreigners and the poor.  “He has brought down the powerful from their throws and lifted up the lowly,” Mary says in Luke 1. Jesus does not come in sentimentality but to overturn powers and principalities.

If we read the words of our carols more closely they teach us about Jesus’s humble birth and death. One of my favorite lesser-known carols is “Bethlehem Down.” In brilliant parallelism, Peter Warlock discusses the gift of “myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown” at Jesus’s birth and “myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown” at Jesus’s death. Jesus is indeed king, but does not exploit his power like earthly rulers. The fourth verse of “We Three Kings” offers the stunning reflection that Christ’s earthly life is one of “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” The same child that experiences a humble birth will experience a humiliating death.

But of course in death there is life. Christianity proclaims that the resurrection of Jesus is good news for all creation. The season of Advent is about expecting the coming of God, the one who has crucified but will in glory forever. The one who “with righteousness shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4). The final verse of “We Three Kings” proclaims:

Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies

Read

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
 
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
 
So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Reflection

  1. How is the beginning of Jesus’s life similar to the end of Jesus’s earthly life?
  2. How has the message of Jesus’s birth been “sentimentalized” in culture?
  3. How would you answer the question “What Child Is This?”

Listen

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Advent Reflection: “Savior of the Nations, Come”

Advent (Latin for “coming”) is the 4-week season of the church year leading up to Christmas.

Martin Luther’s hymn
“Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (1524).

Savior of the Nations Come is an Advent hymn originating from the ancient hymn “Veni redemptor gentium,” written by Ambrose, an important 4th century theologian and church doctor. The chant that accompanied this hymn particularly popular in Germany during the Reformation when Martin Luther translated as “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.” J.S. Bach used the tune extensively, including it in several organ preludes and chorales for congregational singing. The basis of the English text was written by Episcopal priest William Morton Reynolds in 1851. The words of Ambrose discuss the mystery incarnation—God becoming human. This was “not by human flesh and blood, [but] by the Spirit of our God.”

Ambrose is often credited with introducing the practice of antiphonal singing (call-and-response) to the Western Church.  Following this tradition, I recently wrote an arrangment of “Savior of the Nations Come” for my handbell ensemble in which one of the verses will be played antiphonally, with the bells and organ playing back and forth in dialogue.

Text

1) Savior of the nations, come,
virgin’s Son, make here thy home!
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.

2) Not of flesh and blood the Son,
offspring of the Holy One;
born of Mary ever blest,
God in flesh is manifest.

3) Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
of the Virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
still to be in heav’n enthroned.

4) From the Father forth he came
and returneth to the same,
captive leading death and hell,
high the song of triumph swell!

5) Thou the Father’s only Son,
hast o’er sin the vict’ry won.
Boundless shall thy kingdom be;
when shall we its glories see?

6) Praise to God the Father sing.
Praise to God the Son, our King.
Praise to God the Spirit be
ever and eternally. 

Reflection Questions:

  • Why is saying “savior of the nations, come” (stanza 1) a hopeful prayer?
  • Why does all “heav’n and earth” (stanza 1) marvel at the coming of Christ?
  • How is the second coming of Christ related to the first? What makes you yearn for the day on which “we its glories see” (stanza 5)?

Listen

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Reflections on “Come, Thou O Traveler Unknown”

From “A Collection of Spiritual Hymns” (1876)

I love hymns. Good hymns speak truth to the soul and give new voice to scripture. I started this blog to share some my experiences and observations of hymn tunes and texts.  As I write these words I am discerning something new. More school? A job? A new direction? In my confusion I turn to hymns to seek grace and comfort.

I read “Come, Thou O Traveler Unknown” by Charles Wesley for the first time in the United Methodist Hymnal, #387. The editors of the hymnal decided to print all 14 verses and selected four to set to the hymn tune CANDLER. The poem is appropriate for times of suffering and spiritual confusion.

Borrowing imagery from Jacob’s encounter with God (Genesis 32:22-31), Wesley’s text describes an account of wrestling with the nature and mystery of God (“I ask Thee, who art Thou?”, stanza 2). The “traveler” that meets the speaker is identified by “Thee,” “Thou,” and the “unutterable Name,” an identity that becomes clearer as speaker struggles. Glimpses of Christ emerge as “the Man that died for me” (stanza 3) and the “God-man” (stanza 7). The speaker repeatedly asks to know the “name” and the “nature” of the traveler. Finally, a breakthrough arrives in stanza 9:

‘Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy mercies move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

The speaker has recognized the force he has been wrestling as the God of Love and “Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend” (stanza 11)

In contrast to coming to a fuller recognition of God, the speaker’s identity is defined largely by suffering (“My misery and sin declare / I need not tell Thee who I am”, stanza 2). However, as the wrestling match continues,  assurance develops:  “when I am weak, then I am strong” (stanza 6). After the revelation in stanza , the speaker receives mercy and “unspeakable” grace. The speaker’s deep suffering continues, but is met by strength (“All helplessness, all weakness I / On Thee alone for strength depend,” stanza 13). Through an encounter with Love, the speaker can now body proclaim, “Lame as I am … Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome” (stanza 14).

In the spirit of Wesley’s contemporary Isaac Watts, this text interprets an Old story (Jacob wrestling with God) in light of the gospel. Attesting the greatness of the text, Watts himself admitted “That single poem … was worth all the verses I myself have written.”

Like Jacob, we all wrestle. I wrestle with myself and with God. I feel left alone. I am confused about the identity of the “God-man.” Sometimes all I feel sure of is my own weakness (“confident in self-despair,” stanza 8).  But in the midst of the struggle, a presence is revealed that is so strange and so comforting, I am led to say “I will not let Thee go” (stanza 4).  Perhaps paradoxically, this text may suggest that which struggling with faith is faith, the faith by which we encounter God. “Through faith,” Wesley writes, “I see Thee face to face … In vain I have not wept and strove”  (stanza 9).

I love this text. I love celebrating with Wesley that “Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.” God has many names and identifies, but an encounter with Love makes all the difference.

How does this text stir your soul?

Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown
by Charles Wesley

1) Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

2) I need not tell Thee who I am,
My misery and sin declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name,
Look on Thy hands, and read it there;
But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou?
Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.

3) In vain Thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold!
Art Thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

4) Wilt Thou not yet to me reveal
Thy new, unutterable Name?
Tell me, I still beseech Thee, tell;
To know it now resolved I am;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

5) ‘Tis all in vain to hold Thy tongue
Or touch the hollow of my thigh;
Though every sinew be unstrung,
Out of my arms Thou shalt not fly;
Wrestling I will not let Thee go
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

6) What though my shrinking flesh complain,
And murmur to contend so long?
I rise superior to my pain,
When I am weak, then I am strong
And when my all of strength shall fail,
I shall with the God-man prevail.

7) My strength is gone, my nature dies,
I sink beneath Thy weighty hand,
Faint to revive, and fall to rise;
I fall, and yet by faith I stand;
I stand and will not let Thee go
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

8) Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy Name is Love.

9) ‘Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy mercies move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

10) My prayer hath power with God; the grace
Unspeakable I now receive;
Through faith I see Thee face to face,
I see Thee face to face, and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

11) I know Thee, Saviour, who Thou art.
Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend;
Nor wilt Thou with the night depart.
But stay and love me to the end,
Thy mercies never shall remove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

12) The Sun of Righteousness on me
Hath rose with healing in His wings,
Withered my nature’s strength; from Thee
My soul its life and succour brings;
My help is all laid up above;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

13) Contented now upon my thigh
I halt, till life’s short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness I
On Thee alone for strength depend;
Nor have I power from Thee to move:
Thy nature, and Thy name is Love.

14) Lame as I am, I take the prey,
Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And as a bounding hart fly home,
Through all eternity to prove
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

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Five hymns to read during times of sorrow

Kazuya Akimoto, 2008

A life of faith is a life of trust: a trust that God will guide, protect and comfort. These five hymns describe the presence of God in midst of sadness, death and despair. Using metaphors such as wrestling, nightfall and a traveling journey, the hymnwriters describe personal feelings of pain and suffering and the hope that awaits us all in Christ.

1. Abide With Me

This hymn of comfort was inspired by Luke 24:29 in which travelers to Emmeaus tell Jesus to “stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” The text uses evening (“eventide”) as a metaphor for earthly death amidst the pain and suffering in a changing world, ending with supplication “in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.” Rev. Henry Francis Lyte wrote the hymn a few months before his death in 1847, reflecting on “what a beautiful image when we see the light of day ebbing – this light is only a shadow of the light of life that shines forth from Christ.”

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
 
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see.
O thou who changest not, abide with me.
 
I need thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like thyself my guide and strength can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.
 
I fear no foe with thee at hand to bless,
ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.
 
Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes.
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

2. Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Gospel musician Tommy Dorsey penned these words in 1932, a week after his wife died during childbirth. In the style of a lament Psalm, the Dorsey makes a confession (“I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone”), cries to God for help (“Hold my hand lest I fall”) and then proclaims confidence in God’s power (“At the river I stand”). In the midst of tragedy and loss this hymn seeks comfort from the Lord who will guides, hears and leads.

Precious Lord, Take My Hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
 
When my way grows drear,
precious Lord linger near
When my light is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
 
When the darkness appears
and the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

3. Come Thou O Traveler Unknown

This poem by Methodist hymnwriter Charles Wesley borrows from the story of Jacob wrestling with God found in Genesis 32:22-32. The speaker finds his identify in a fight against sin and sadness (“I need not tell thee who I am / my misery or sin declare”), but like Jacob he struggles to identify his opponent (“whom still I hold, but cannot see”).  After questioning his opponent (“Art thou the man that died for me?”) he suddenly discovers the presence of Christ (“’Tis Love! ‘Tis Love! Thou diedst for me!”) and rejoices in God’s very nature (“pure universal Love thou art”). Isaac Watts, the most prolific English hymnriter, describes this beautiful text as “worth all the verses that he himself had written.”

Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
whom still I hold, but cannot see;
my company before is gone,
and I am left alone with thee;
with thee all night I mean to stay,
and wrestle till the break of day.
 
I need not tell thee who I am,
my misery or sin declare;
thyself hast called me by my name;
look on thy hands, and read it there!
But who, I ask thee, who art thou?
Tell me thy name, and tell me now.
 
In vain thou strugglest to get free;
I never will unloose my hold.
Art thou the man that died for me?
The secret of thy love unfold:
wrestling, I will not let thee go,
till I thy name, thy nature know.
 
Yield to me now, for I am weak,
but confident in self-despair;
speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
be conquered by my instant prayer.
Speak, or thou never hence shalt move,
and tell me if thy name is Love!
 
‘Tis Love! ‘Tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear thy whisper in my heart!
The morning breaks, the shadows flee;
pure universal Love thou art:
to me, to all, thy mercies move;
thy nature and thy name is Love.

4. I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say

This hymn by Horatius Bonar describes three invitations made by Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30, John 7:37-38 and John 8:12).  As a response, a weary and thirsty traveler finds rest, confidence and revival “’til trav’ling days are done.” The text sees life as a painful journey made easier by accepting the offerings of Jesus, which provide light and life.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
lay down, O weary one, lay down
your head upon my breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
weary and worn and sad;
I found in him a resting place,
and he has made me glad.
 
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
the living water; thirsty one,
stoop down and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
of that life-giving stream;
my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
and now I live in him.
 
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“I am this dark world’s Light;
look unto me, your morn shall rise,
and all your days be bright.”
I looked to Jesus and I found
in him my Star, my Sun;
and in that light of life I’ll walk,
’til trav’ling days are done.

5. In the Cross of Christ I Glory

John Bowring’s most well-known hymn opens “In the cross of Christ I glory / towering o’er the wrecks of time.” Humanity has certainly made a “wreck of time” by building and destroying, inflicting pain and ignoring the most vulnerable. Christ offers a different path: “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). Accordingly, this hymn proclaims the love and sacrifice of Christ above all else (Galatians 6:14).  All earthly experiences (“Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure”) are seen in light of Christ’s saving death (“never shall the cross forsake me.”).

In the cross of Christ I glory,
towering o’er the wrecks of time;
all the light of sacred story
gathers round its head sublime.
 
When the woes of life o’ertake me,
hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
never shall the cross forsake me.
Lo! it glows with peace and joy.
 
When the sun of bliss is beaming
light and love upon my way,
from the cross the radiance streaming
adds more luster to the day.
 
Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure,
by the cross are sanctified;
peace is there that knows no measure,
joys that through all time abide.
 
In the cross of Christ I glory,
towering o’er the wrecks of time;
all the light of sacred story
gathers round its head sublime.

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Can you identify these 5 emoji hymns?

July 17 is #WorldEmojiDay! As a celebration of these whimsical icons, we’ve translated five well-known hymns into emojis. Can you identify each hymn? Comment below with your own emoji hymns!

1

👁️👁️, 😇❤️
🤷, 💾✝️
💭, 🌅🌃
⏰😴, 😇💡

2

💪 🏰 👑, 🚢 ❌
🆘 🌊, ⚰️🤒
😈 😔, ✂️ 🔌
💪 😡, 🌎 ✝️

3

😇😇😇! 🙏👑🤴
🌅💡, 🎶☝️🤴
😇😇😇! 😩➕💪!
🤴🔀👨‍👩‍👦, 😇☘️!

4

👑🤴👑👑👑, 🐑💺
😇🎶 🌊, 🎼
⏰🎶, 🤴😵
🛐🤴, ⌛

5

🌸 🌎, 🌠
❤️ 👶, 🛏️
✝️ ☝️, 🎶🙌

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New Hymn: “Faith of Our Mothers”

In a previous post I complained about how some traditional hymnody conflates American patriotism with Christian freedom. For example, the militaristic language in “Faith of Our Fathers,” is often interpreted as a defense of American freedom. As a response, I’ve crafted a new text that celebrates women called “Faith of Our Mothers.” Here’s the story of both hymns.

Background

The hymn of “Faith of Our Fathers” was written in 1849 to honor Catholics who were martyred during the formation of the Church of England in 1534. The text tells the story of saints “chained in prisons dark,” urging the faithful to “be true to thee till death.” Consider the third stanza in the original text:

Faith of our Fathers! Mary’s prayers
Shall win our country back to thee:
And through the truth that comes from God
England shall then indeed be free.

The hymn is a distinctly Catholic, but it has gained popularity in American Protestantism by omitting or adapting the verse above. According to hymnary.org, “Faith of Our Fathers” is part of the top 250 hymns most commonly published in modern hymnals. The text is sung to ST. CATHERINE, composed by Henri F. Hemy in 1864.

Interpretation

“Faith of Our Fathers” is about a church schism. The “fathers” in each stanza  specifically refer to Reformation martyrs, but without this context the hymn is open to interpretation.

For example, in the United States, “fathers” are usually interpreted faith leaders, but they could also be political figures, particularly powerful men such as the “founding fathers”. Imagery such as the “dungeon, fire, and sword” plays to militaristic imaginations and strengthens the idea that the hymn tells the story of American independence.  Under this interpretation, the ideals of America are thought of as Christian ethics, made clear by the following Protestant-ized verse:

Faith of or Fathers! We will strive
to win all nations unto thee
through truth that comes from God
the world shall then be truly free.

The concept of “freedom” mentioned here equates a religious struggle with a political one. In other words, Christian belief seen as pillar of American thought.  This is a troubling thought in a country that claims to honor religious freedom and freedom of conscious. Furthermore, vast societal injustices such as racism and poverty make void any claim that the United State (or any government) bears the light of the Gospel.  The call to “to win all nations unto thee” not only militarizes Christianity, but continues a brutal colonial past. Therefore, a song that originally honored lives lost during the Reformation has been transformed into a patriotic hymn about spreading an Americanized Christianity focused on conquest and forming a state religion.

Faith of Our Mothers

While the gospels bear witness to Jesus’s profound commitment to women, the gifts of women still struggle to be celebrated in the Church. Patriotic hymns like “Faith of Our Fathers” tend to reinforce a patriarchal worldview and completely dismiss the real contributions of women of faith.

As an alternative I recently wrote a new text for ST. CATHERINE titled “Faith of Our Mothers,”1 celebrating the role of women in proclaiming the Christian faith.  The hymn is directly inspired by roles women play in the Bible. Reflections on the text follow.

Theological Reflection

Verse 1. Jesus tells a parable about a poor widow who pleads for to a judge for justice from her adversary. The judge was forced to relent because of the widow’s persistence:

Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.

Luke 18:4-5

The cause of justice takes time and effort, but Jesus also provides the hope that unlike the judge, God “will quickly grant justice.”

Women have long persisted in the face of injustice and the arc of history shows that women are often victims of male leaders. Despite this, the Biblical narrative describes powerful female leaders among God’s people. God raised up the prophet Deborah to instruct and guide Barak to an Israelite victory (Judges 4:10), remembered by the Song of Deborah in Judges 5:

To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

Judges 5:11

Judges also tells the story of Jael, a woman who heroically attacked the Canaanite leader Sisera (Judges 5:24-26).

Verse 2. Mary, the mother of Jesus is the central character in the opening of Luke. In her stunning song of praise—the Magnificat—she rejoices in God’s promise of mercy, justice and salvation (Luke 1:46–55). Mary follows after Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who gives a similar song of joy (1 Samuel 2:1–10), and Miriam, a female prophet who danced after God part the Red Sea:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

Exodus 15:20–21

The prophet Micah remembers Miriam as one of the leaders on the journey Egypt (Micah 6:4) and this story of liberation is recounted throughout the Bible as a sign of God’s deliverance (Hebrews 11:27-29, Acts 7:35-38).

Verse 3. After Christ was crucified, only his closest allies stayed with him, including women who had walked over 60 miles from Galilee:

And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Luke 23:49; cf. Matthew 27:55

In ancient Israel, mourning women were called upon to weep over public tragedies and injustice (Jeremiah 9:17-24). Similarity, the women at the cross wailed over the crucified Jesus (Luke 23:27), who had previously supported and empowered them (Mark 5:25-34; Luke 21:1-4)

A few days later, the crucial message “Christ is risen,” was also entrusted to women:

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.

Luke 24:9-11

A profound truth of the gospel story is that women funded Jesus’s ministry (Luke 8:1-3), stood by during his execution and proclaimed his resurrection to disbelieving men.

Verse 4. Women are not always mothers, nor do they need to be (1 Corinthians 7:8-9) and so the opening line of this verse celebrates the “faith of all women”. The New Testament provides examples of several important women in the early church (Acts 9:36–42):

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.

Romans 16:1-2

Despite being witnesses to the resurrection, women are still kept from being church leaders. This hymn is an attempt to encourage and amplify the role of women in the Body of Christ.

1 In fairness, there is a twentieth century text called “Faith of Our Mothers,” but it only affirms women as homemakers, which is a narrow vision of the role of women in the church based on Biblical evidence.